Justify defied all the odds on his way to achieving Triple Crown immortality.
The late bloomer won the 150th Belmont Stakes in New York by 1¾ lengths on Saturday, leading all the way to give the sport its 13th Triple Crown champion. American Pharoah ended a 37-year drought in 2015 and now just four years later, racing is celebrating another sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Justify won the Belmont starting from the rail. The last Triple Crown from that spot at the Belmont was Secretariat, 45 years ago to the day Saturday.
“The raw talent is there,” trainer Bob Baffert said. “He just came on there and broke every curse there was. It was meant to be.”
Justify is just the second horse to capture the Triple Crown undefeated, joining Seattle Slew (1977). Justify, who is 6-0 and is the first horse to sweep the series without racing at age 2, beat nine others to win — more competition than any other Triple Crown winner has beaten in the Belmont. Justify defeated 35 horses across the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.
Baffert joins “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons as the only trainers to win the Triple Crown twice. Fitzsimmons won in 1930 with Gallant Fox and in 1935 with Omaha. Baffert won in 2015 with American Pharoah.
It was Baffert’s fifth attempt to win the Triple Crown — three more than any other trainer.
“It never gets old,” Baffert said. “American Pharoah, he’ll always be my first love.”
But Baffert also called Justify one of the all-time greats.
It was jockey Mike Smith’s first Triple Crown. At 52, he is the oldest jockey to win the Triple Crown.
“This horse ran a tremendous race. He’s so gifted,” said Smith, who looked to the sky to celebrate after his ride. “He’s sent from heaven. I tell you, it’s just amazing. I can’t describe the emotions going through my body right now.”
Purchased for $500,000, Justify earned $800,000 for his Belmont win, giving him $3,798,000 in his brief career. Sent off as the 4-5 favorite, he ran 1½ miles — the longest race of the series — in 2:28.18 and paid $3.60, $3.50 and $2.80.
Baffert had fretted after Justify drew the No. 1 post, a spot he detests for his horses. But Smith turned it into an advantage, gunning Justify to the lead and defying any horse to challenge.
Restoring Hope, also trained by Baffert, ran interference for the champion while traveling second and deterring any threats by forcing them to go extremely wide. Nobody did. Smith got the colt into a relaxed rhythm under a moderate pace heading into the backstretch, and he had an easy trip from there.
“You can’t doubt him now, there’s no way,” said Bill Mott, trainer of third-place Hofburg. “He did it right up on the pace, and everybody had an opportunity to take their shot. They didn’t do it. They let it go too easy.”
Gronkowski, named for and partly owned by New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, finished second in the 1½-mile race. The 24-1 shot picked off a half-dozen rivals in taking up the chase down the lane.
“My thought turning for home was that he had a shot to get him if Justify was vulnerable at mile and a half,” said Chad Brown, who trains Gronkowski. “I thought maybe, because I could see Gronkowski flying, but he just couldn’t get to that horse.”
Vino Rosso finished fourth, followed by Tenfold, Bravazo, Free Drop Billy, Restoring Hope, Blended Citizen and Noble Indy before a crowd of 90,327.
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